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Interview with: Juan N. Flores
Date: November 03, 2011
Archive Number: OH A75
I: 0:00:04.2 —a few seconds to get rolling. Okay, Daddy. All I want you to do is to talk about when you came to this country, why you came to this country, what you did, and with the understanding that what you did is what also other Mexican Americans, other Mexicans in the area did too. But it’s your story.
F: His father died. Can he say his father died?
I: He can start any way he wants. Why you came to this country—
F: You had friends here.
I: Sure and his—
F: Maria doesn’t know, so there was a good reason but—
I: Okay, Dad.
JN: Which is the mic?
I: This is the microphone right here.
JN: That little bitty thing?
I: It’s powerful. It’s a Sony. It’s good.
JN: Like many other Latin Americans, or so-called Spanish people, we come to the United States with the intention of bettering ourselves, learning English, and maybe making a better future. I came in 1924. Although I had not finished an education in Mexico, I knew a few words of English, and it was some help. The first thing I did was to go to a school to learn English, and I had an opportunity to learn something that was very, very radical and new to me. At the age of 15 years old, they put me in kindergarten, which was a practical experience because the walls were surrounded with 3 layers of pictures describing visually and verbally the meaning of the word rope, cheese, bread, and soap. It helped me 2 ways because in the first place, I was not altogether strange to the pictures at least, and I learned how to read them even though I didn’t know how to pronounce them. I learned how to speak broken English from that experience, but I didn’t stay in kindergarten very long. They moved me up to low fourth, and I met fellows that took a liking to me, and the teachers, they all were very kind, and they all seemed to be right then—as they are now—they’re all very helpful, and they like the Latin American people very much. They kind of sympathize with them from the very beginning.
I: 0:03:06.0 Can you remember what school you went to, Daddy?
JN: Yeah, I went to San Jacinto. San Jacinto. We call it K School, (?) Avenue K and 20th Street.
I: Would you talk a little bit about how old you were when you left Mexico, and you and Granny, why you left Mexico and came to Galveston?
JN: I came to Galveston in 1924, in November of 1924, and I wasn’t here 2 years before my mother came up.
I: You were 16 when—
JN: I was about 16 years old.
I: And who did you stay with?
JN: Well, I stayed with a family that was relatives to a person that my mother had known in Mexico City, and the grandmother and the grandson weren’t living in here for I imagine the same reason—he was working at the time for the Prudential Insurance Company. They didn’t take me in as far as saying they supported me, but they did make arrangements to see that I had a room, and I learned the ropes, more or less. It was where to go and how much to pay and things like that.
I: Why were people leaving Mexico at that time and coming to the United States or to Galveston?
JN: Well, most of us really, I think, left Mexico because of the fact that practically everything that was our belongings had been taken away from us. During the revolution, we lost about everything there was. They burned crop after crop, and then the other reason, they took the lands away, and they give it to the peones. Most of us were left without a future.
I: Now, you were a member of the upper class.
JN: 0:05:21.3 Well, we had been more or less independent. We had a little land and ranches and what-not. Most of them, I imagine, were legacies from way back to the Spaniards. My grandfather was a genuine Spaniard. He was, and neither one of them at that time were born in Mexico. My mother and father, I imagine, were the first ones of the generation, this present generation, that were born in Mexico.
I: So, you planned when you came here to study a craft, to learn a craft?
JN: I was thinking of that not very long ago because I started out from Mexico with a passport saying that I was coming as a student with 6 months—you know—applying for a 6 month permission visa. When I got to Laredo, it was on a Saturday morning, and the consul looked at me and says “You know, I don’t think you’re going to be just a student. See, I don’t think you’re coming back. Tell me the truth. How do you feel about it?” Like I said, he looked straight at me, and I looked right straight back at him and I said, “No, sir.” I said, “I have nothing to come back to.” I said, “If I can learn English, and I can get situated, I’d like to stay.” So, then he fixed it so they gave me a permanent visa right then and there. Then the cab driver took me under his wing because he saw that I was real young and inexperienced and I guess afraid, frightened—
I: Was he a Mexican?
JN: Yeah, and then the cab driver told him, “Mr. Consul, it’s Saturday, and everything closes at noon.” He said, “If he’s going to stay here until Monday in order to—because he’s got to have pictures for these visas and documents and everything. That might be a hardship on him.” So, they cut out the old picture from my Mexican passport to paste it on the American passport. That’s how I came to be here with—oh, you might say all at once because it was decided right then and there that if it was possible, I’d like to stay. So, after I got through the line, I just figured I was here to stay.
I: And what made you decide to become a carpenter? Were other Mexicans in the trade?
JN: No. As a matter of fact, I always wanted to be a mechanic. I loved to look at my greasy old face and greasy hands and always working on bicycles and skates and one thing and another. When I got here, one of the first things I did was deliver groceries, and after that, I worked at the Piggly Wiggly bagging beans and split peas and sacking stuff because everything used to come in 100 pound bags. Everything used to come in 100 pound bags and sacks, and then at the store, they make 2 pound bags and 4 pound bags. Prunes, peaches, everything. The largest came in great big old 400 pound drums, and we’ll put it in pails, 2 pound pails, 1 pound, 4 pounds, according to what they’re going to sell the most of because the fruit is on sale.
I: You worked in some restaurants too.
JN: 0:09:42.8 Oh, yeah. But that was quite a bit later. First, I worked grocery stores mostly. That’s where I got started, and then after I grew up some and got better acquainted, I started working in restaurants, cafes, frying hamburgers and busboy and one thing and another. In 1924, we used to be a big deal then. It was altogether different from what it is now. People used to come to Galveston, and they enjoyed themselves, and they spent some money, but in a different sense, because hamburgers sold at a dime a throw, and people used to buy hamburgers by the dozen. They’ll come—
I: You worked at the Balinese too.
JN: Oh, yeah.
F: During the Depression.
JN: Yeah, after I got to working night clubs, I learned more language and the ways about the cafes, how to serve people and everything. Well, then I worked in the night clubs too.
I: Other Mexicans worked in the stores and in the—
JN: Oh, yeah. Practically everyone was Mexican, busboys, waiters, cooks. Especially cooks, waiters and busboys. Yeah, they seemed like they were well liked, favorites, because—
I: Okay, big employers in Galveston, and Mexicans were—the wharves, were the wharves and—
JN: 0:11:33.9 Well, no. There were Mexicans everywhere. In 1927, when I went to work for the railroad, went to the Santa Fe shop, the biggest part of (s/l the guys were there) and the car shops and the roundhouse and the machine shop. It was all—the biggest part of them were Mexicans. Some of them were regional Mexicans, I mean from Mexico, and others from out here around The Valley and descendants of Mexican families.
I: And the wharves too?
JN: And the wharves. The wharf didn’t have too many Mexicans because the unions managed to keep them out of there, but the cotton press employed the majority. The majority of the men working on cotton compressors were all Mexican and Mexican descent.
I: Mama mentioned some mills.
F: Flour mill.
I: Was there a flour mill?
JN: Yeah, in Galveston at that time there was a flour mill.
F: A rice mill.
JN: And the mill, they employed a lot of Mexican people too, but it didn’t last too long because the flour mill was established in Fort Worth. And out here they came and they hired men to work. They told them what they were going to do and how many hours they were going to work and how much money they were going to get for it. So, they went on strike, and they asked for more money, and the flour mill told them that was not the agreement. But they did get a little raise, I imagine. I don’t remember exactly, but anyhow, soon enough, within a year or so, they decided to pull off a strike asking for more money. Then the flour mill told them that it was all wrong because according to the original contract, they’re supposed to be working a certain number of hours. They stopped paying what’s established, and the mill closed up and moved back to Fort Worth. That was the end of the flour mill.
F: And the rice mill too.
JN: And the rice mill did pretty much the same thing, yeah.
I: Now, what part of town were they in, and I’m wondering now, did Mexican people tend to live around where they worked? And what part of Galveston did they tend to live in?
JN: 0:14:11.4 Well, yes. The majority of the Mexican families, they were all concentrated around the—what you call the section gang. Railroad yards with the section hands have their own quarters owned by the railroad. It’s railroad land. But others that didn’t live in the quarters furnished by the railroad, well, they’d try to stay pretty close together, and before you know, they’re kind of a colony, and around 42nd, 43rd, Whitney and H, Avenue I.
I: And the railroad tracks, was that the east end, like now where it still is on about 25th and Strand and further east?
JN: Well, what you consider the other side of the tracks. It was more or less from about 37th Street West because that’s where the yards began. Santa Fe Yard, SP Yard, GH & H Yard, and each one of them had a section of houses where the hands lived, the railroad track workers.
I: And about what street would that be considered now?
JN: Oh, well, like I said, the Santa Fe had theirs at about 42nd Street.
I: About 42nd too.
F: In the 40s. It was nice in those days.
I: So, not too many people were carpenters like you, were skilled—
JN: At the time they wouldn’t—
F: He had a good job.
JN: 0:16:07.8 One of the reasons why is that it was already beginning to feel the Depression. They didn’t have enough work to give the Americans and then the Mexicans work. I worked for the Santa Fe from ‘27 when I joined to ’38, and in ’38 when I came out of there, 2/3 or better of the carpenter unions were walking the streets. They had no work. That was in the middle of the Depression. When I finished with the Santa Fe, I tried to join the union, but there was no chance because they weren’t going to let you in. They didn’t have work for you. One thing is that it was absolutely necessary too that if you wanted to belong to the union, you had to be an American citizen.
I: Oh, that was a rule of the union?
JN: Oh, yeah.
I: Okay, how about painters?
JN: Painters? Yeah, but that was all more or less under non-union.
I: But after the Depression that began to loosen up more—
JN: Yes, but there was always work. When I came out of the Santa Fe shop, the first real work that I had other than spare time at the cafes and at the waterfront was building homes for the Federal Housing Administration. In other words, we’d call it FHA. The base of the FHA. There was always work.
I: Was that Oleander Homes?
JN: No, we built a lot of the privately owned homes, whole colonies of them.
I: When did Mexicans begin to be more allowed in greater numbers into the unions, into carpentry and into painting? When did that come? Maybe the Second World War?
JN: 0:18:42.5 One thing is that at the beginning, the Mexicans tried to stay very much Mexicans. They’d congregate and assemble more to themselves, and naturally, they didn’t mix very much. But then the children, that was a different story because they went to school. They acquired not only the education but the ambition, and most of them started branching out, and they have done rather well, like we all know today we have several of them in politics, and they’re doing very well.
I: Can you think of any prominent—who were prominent Mexicans, Mexican Americans of your time or before now?
JN: No, there were very few, and you might say their success was very limited because a couple of them—one of them was a tailor, and he owned a little tailor shop.
I: Who was that?
JN: Mr. Garza, I think, was it?
F: Vera Real. (?)
JN: Vera Real. And another one had a little combination newsstand and drug store. Your mother’s father, he had a grocery store. They were more or less independent but still on a small scale.
F: The consul. The consul had a drug store.
JN: Well, he owned a drug store in combination—
F: Mr. Carbanes (?).
JN: 0:20:29.8 Yeah, Carbanes. A combination drug store and newsstand.
F: The consul general.
JN: And he was honorary consul. No pay.
F: Yeah, he did it—
I: Well, that probably helped his business.
JN: It did.
I: The Catholic priest at Guadalupe, was he well known?
F: Dwan (?). Father Dwan. Oh, yeah.
JN: Oh, yeah.
I: Just in Galveston?
JN: The biggest part of the Mexican colony, I think it was congregated around the neighborhood of—
JN: No, the Guadalupe didn’t exist at that time. That was St. Patrick’s.
I: St. Patrick’s.
JN: Yeah, 35th and (s/l Maginot). And then the bishop donated the land, and then all the school buildings from St. Patrick’s to the Mexican colony, and that was the original church.
F: I went to school—
JN: A little wooden building that was put down on the ground facing at that time 44th Street.
F: We have pictures somewhere around here. I have a picture—
JN: And then after a while, about 2 or 3 years after the church was started, then they began having schools and went onto building on the school.
I: And Father Dwan was a well known person in town?
F: 0:22:06.7 Amongst the Mexicans.
JN: Yeah, among Mexicans and they didn’t have very much activity.
I: Not too much there.
F: Congregation there was—
I: How about just mentioning the other church, the Mexican Catholic church. Did you ever go to that or did you know—?
JN: Well, no. It wasn’t orthodox. It was not strictly a Catholic church.
I: Who was the pastor?
JN: Mexican orthodox.
F: The Catholic—
JN: The man in charge, the one who called himself a priest, his name was Rodriguez. It lasted quite a while, I think at least about 4 years or so. One thing is that the bishop never did try to fight them. More or less, eventually they just—the Catholics, they just swallowed them because the novelty died down and most people just—
I: Well, he was pretty popular, wasn’t he?
F: He doesn’t know, but I know. You want me to tell you?
I: Okay, let’s just finish it.
F: Then the Roman Catholics took it.
I: Oh, yeah. Later the Catholics took the church over, but I think Rodriguez was pretty popular among Catholics, wasn’t he? He was a disc jockey. Didn’t he have a radio show?
I: 0:23:35.0 I thought he did.
F: I don’t think so. Not that I know of. (talking at the same time)
JN: I think he did. He started working as an announcer on one of the Mexican radio—(talking at the same time)
I: And I think he helped Mexican—
JN: Well, he spoke the kind of Mexican language that people really understood, you see. That made him quite famous.
F: Patrick’s took over. St. Patrick’s took over. I mean, a priest was recognized—
I: Okay, so Father Dwan, Mr. Rodriguez. I don’t know his name really. What kind of—I remember that you were a member of LULAC. Were there any other organizations, Mexican organizations before that?
JN: The LULACs, I joined the LULAC, but I soon enough found out that it was not for me. It was not my place. It was not my ideals.
I: When did you join the LULACs?
JN: Oh, I don’t know. I couldn’t begin to—
I: I can remember when you were a secretary—
JN: I couldn’t begin to mention any date, not even just a year.
I: You might have been in your 30s, don’t you think?
JN: Because the LULACs, it’s supposed to represent Mexican citizens living in the United States, the ones that otherwise would have no representation whatsoever. It was never my ideal.
I: But do you think they helped some people? The organization tried to help.
JN: They did try to help, but they tried to help their own way, things that were done to help the people. They called it discrimination, and that’s when I quit right flat. I told them, I said, “Is that what you call discrimination?” I said, “Let’s welcome the discrimination because it’s a betterment of the Mexican people.”
I: 0:25:46.8 Let’s not forget, they gave me a scholarship.
JN: And that’s when Father—St. Mary’s.
JN: Father Dan was trying to get this colony here dedicated for the Mexican people, and they figured they were discriminating because that was going to put the Mexicans all in one place. But they were going to enjoy much better conditions, healthier living, much better houses, cleaner houses than they had been living in.
I: Was Father Dan for Magnolia Homes?
JN: Oh, yeah.
I: Was it Magnolia?
JN: He was. Yes, indeed he was. That’s when I told them, I said, “Is that what you all call discrimination?” I said, “Let’s welcome the discrimination.”
I: Some of the Mexicans in town didn’t like the idea of Magnolia Homes?
JN: No, they thought that they were discriminating.
I: When you were a young man, what organizations were there? Was there something before LULAC?
JN: Oh, yeah. There were social clubs that we used to have gatherings, picnics and dances.
I: Did you have a name for the organization?
JN: Yeah, Club Edis (?) was one of the most famous and longest. They lasted the longest because always they formed, they made up, in 2 or 3 or 4 months they all faded away. But the Club Edis was quite active, and it lasted several years. The majority of the older people, the ones that have actually established we’re going to die, get too old and—
I: 0:27:41.2 It was social.
JN: Yeah, it was a social club thing. We used to go to Houston, join them in celebrations on the 16th of September and then the 5th of May, and then every time they installed offices, like the new offices at (s/l Legend), they had a big affair at the old Aragon Ballroom, one of the big places in—
I: You went on the interurban?
I: You went on the interurban—
JN: No, we used to drive cars. Back then, by that time, I was a big shot. I had a car of my own.
I: When was that now? About when?
JN: Oh, let’s see. That was around the 30s and 40s.
I: Before I was born.
JN: Oh, yes.
I: In the mid 30s.
F: Even before we were married.
JN: Let’s see, I finished with the Santa Fe in ’38, and then I was working for the Santa Fe when the biggest—when it was really effective and it really served the most—late 20s and 30s.
I: Early 30s. So—okay, I’m trying to think of what else. Is there anything else that was interesting just that you did or—I know I was thinking of something, and now I can’t remember what it was. Let’s stop it for a minute. (first audio file stops 0:29:36.5)
JN: (second audio file starts 0:00:4.3) One thing that is very noticeable is the difference on the feeling of the people. It seems like at that time that everybody was so much closer together. They saw each other. They visited each other’s homes, and there was always some kind of an organization that celebrated feasts like the 5th of May, the 16th of September. We used to have reunions in the city hall or sometimes in Texas City’s city hall. There were speeches made, little dances, folk dance, singing.
I: Poems. I remember poems.
JN: Yeah, all kinds of—and people used to enjoy it very much, and they were always willing to cooperate. But lately, it seems like the only time we all see each other is at Weingarten’s or the funeral homes because nobody goes anywhere. Maybe the television has got something to do with that. Everybody sits home watching television, and nobody wants to go anywhere. Actually, they don’t even hold a conversation because one of them tries to say something, and the rest of them go “Shhh, shut up.”
I: 0:01:40.8 Do you think that when they tore down the city auditorium that had something to do with it?
JN: No, I don’t think so. It’s just that the people just have a grand time around Christmas window shopping because all the stores put big displays on the windows. They even had moving animated displays, and another thing that contributed to that was the moving pictures and sometimes vaudevilles. They get out—you know—the people come out of there between 8, 10 o’clock or something. It was too early to go home and go to bed, and then they’d just walk around town and window shop. Sometimes early in the afternoon they’d walk around town. They’d do some window shopping, and they’d go to the confectionary, sit down and have ice cream or malted milk.
I: It’s okay. As long as this is, we’ve been—would you talk just for a little while about Granny, about why she came and what she did when she was here?
JN: Well, she didn’t—I guess you might say the reason she came was just like myself and a lot of others. That was one of the few ways to go that was left for her, and especially after I had left and I came in and I decided I was going to stay. Then she decided to come too, and she came with a 6-month visa because she didn’t know whether she was going to like it or not, but everything went all right, and we got situated, and she went back, and she sold the house that we had in Durango. With that money, we started buying in here, and we just got a place and stayed put.
I: Was it Granny’s idea for you to come here?
JN: Well, when it was resolved that there was no other way to go in Mexico—I could not continue to go to school because the money had given out, and they asked me, they said, “What do you want to do?” You see, I had an uncle in San Antonio that was in a good position, and he offered to take me in and help me out and all that, find me work or something. I told him no. I said, “I’m going to start on my own.” I said, “I want to go start on my own where nobody knows.” And that’s how I came to wind up in here.
I: 16 years old.
JN: Yeah. Well, Stephanista’s (?) Dolores, she went to this uncle, and she did because they went through the same deal as we did.
I: Who’s Dolores?
JN: My cousin. They lost practically everything they had and everything and—
I: And where did she go?
JN: She went to San Antonio. She worked with the (s/l Otumen well) with Kitty in San Antonio for a while, and she learned English, and she went back to Mexico.
I: But she went back to Mexico. Okay. Now Granny, when she bought these 2 houses, she made her living by renting out the apartments.
JN: Yeah. That other house was rented out all the time, yeah, until we moved in. At that time 2—
F: She rented this—
JN: And then this house was divided through here, and part of this house was rented out as housekeeping, housekeeping rooms.
I: So, that’s how she earned her living. Okay. (audio file ends 0:06:18.5)